04/29/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA

Rajapaksa triumphs in provincial elections: a vote against the Tamils?

by Melani Manel Perera
The victory of the United People's Freedom Alliance seems like indirect approval of the war against the Tigers. But the country is witnessing a competition of solidarity to assist the refugees. The Christian Churches are the most active. Muslims send five cooks to refugee centers in Vanni.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - The United People's Freedom Alliance (UFPA) has triumphed in the provincial elections. 64.7% of the inhabitants of the districts of Colombo, Gampaha, and Kalutara voted for the alliance that supports President Mahinda Rajapaksa. For some commentators, the result of the voting is indirect approval by the population of the Western Province for the decision to battle the Tamil Tigers with no ceasefire. Nonetheless, the figures do not lend themselves too simplistic interpretations. The voters for the UFPA do not include only Sinhalese, who make up the majority of the population of the Western Province, but also the Muslim and Tamil minorities. The result of the voting must also be interpreted together with another fact: many of the people who chose the alliance of President Rajapaksa are the same ones who are giving food, clothing, and goods of every kind for the Tamil refugees.

The majority of the inhabitants in the southern part of the island want the total defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and an end to the ethnic conflict that has divided the north and south of Sri Lanka for decades. But this does not seem to coincide with the generalized hostility of the Sinhalese population toward the Tamils. This is clear from the strenuous aid efforts being seen from much of the southern part of the country, involving people of every social and religious background. Many of them, especially the Christians, had begun to take up collections even before the appeal to the population by Rajapaksa himself.

The number of civilians who have fled from the war zone in recent days has exceeded 100,000 - the Defense Ministry says there are 113,667 - to whom must be added the thousands of refugees, the so-called Internally Displaced People, who for years have been living in the refugee camps managed by the Colombo government. The Catholic Church has been collecting donations on their behalf for months, and is ready to intervene in the war zone with its charitable organizations if the authorities and the army give them permission. Moreover, for years religious and priests have been working in the war zone, and have never left the population, even under the bombing; some of them have lost their lives, others, like Fr. Vasanthaseelan, have been seriously injured.

Sister Gertrude, the superior of the Good Shepherded Convent, Kotahena in Colombo, tells AsiaNews that "As a response to the first appeal from Archbishop Oswald Gomis, we collected 500,000 rupees [editor's note: a little more than 3,000 euros] to be sent to the victims of the war, especially the women and children." To these were added 300,000 rupees donated by students and families of the Catholic schools, and "another 200,000 gathered in just one day through a school choir performance."

Together with the raising of funds, the faithful of the diocese in the capital have also collected new and used clothing, freeze-dried food and rice, and health and hygiene products, to be sent to the Caritas centers operating in Vanni, or to the government offices assisting refugees.

There is a genuine competition of solidarity underway among Catholics and Anglicans. But it is not only Christians who are involved in the efforts to help the Tamil refugees. With the worsening of the humanitarian emergency, the efforts of the various religious communities in the country have also increased. The Batticaloa Kattankudy Mosque Federation, for example, has sent five Muslim cooks to the IDP centers in Vanni. The secretary of the Muslim federation, Sabeel, explains that "the five took their provisions and cooking utensils," while other volunteers "are collecting food and clothing for the Tamil refugees." "They are our fellow citizens," Sabeel says, " and it is our duty to take care of them while they are in need."

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